WWI Centennial: Gas Attack at Ypres

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 179th installment in the series.

April 22, 1915: Gas Attack at Ypres

At 5pm on April 22, 1915, following a German artillery bombardment, French soldiers holding the northern face of the Ypres salient saw a greenish-yellow cloud drifting towards them from the enemy trenches along a roughly four-mile-long stretch of the front.

 As the cloud reached their positions the soldiers  — mostly middle-aged militia volunteers in the 87th Territorial Division and North African colonial troops in the Algerian 45th Division  — began coughing violently and gasping for air, tears and mucus streaming down their faces, their lungs burning, accompanied by retching and dry heaving. Tearing at their own throats and coughing up blood, some sought refuge at the bottom of their trenches but merely hurried to their doom, as chlorine gas is heavier than air.

 

Unsurprisingly, after a few minutes of this the French soldiers fled their trenches in terror. Harold Peat, a Canadian private in reserve in the eastern part of the salient, witnessed the first moments of this new horror in war:

In the far distance we saw a cloud rise as though from the earth. It was a greeny-red color, and increased in volume as it rolled forward. It was like a mist rising, and yet it hugged the ground, rose five or six feet, and penetrated to every crevice and dip in the ground. We could not tell what it was. Suddenly from out the mist we men in reserves saw movement. Coming towards us, running as though Hell as it really was had been let loose behind them, were the black troops from Northern Africa. Poor devils, I do not blame them. It was enough to make any man run. 

Another Canadian soldier in the front line, Reginald Grant, painted a similar picture:

The line trembled from one end to the other, as the Algerian troops immediately on our left, jumped out of their trenches, falling as they ran. The whole thing seemed absolutely incomprehensible until I got a whiff of the gas. They ran like men possessed, gasping, choking, blinded and dropping with suffocation. They could hardly be blamed... The buttons on our uniforms were tinged yellow and green from the gas, so virulent was the poison.

The gas attack marked the beginning of the Second Battle of Ypres, which would last until May 25, 1915, and like the First Battle of Ypres include several distinct phases, each a battle in its own right: the Battle of Gravenstafel Ridge from April 22-23; the Battle of St. Julien from April 24-May 4; the Battle of Frezenberg Ridge from May 8-13; and the Battle of Bellewaarde Ridge from May 24-25. Over this period the Allies suffered around 70,000 killed, wounded, and missing in action, while the Germans lost about half that number.

Gravenstafel Ridge 

Ypres is located at the bottom of a shallow basin, surrounded by plains gently rising to a semicircle of low hills to the north, east, and south, dotted with forests, lakes, and villages. As the names of the individual battles indicate, the Second Battle of Ypres was largely a struggle for control of some of these hills, as well as the village of St. Julien a few miles northeast of Ypres. 

Short on shells and looking for a new way to soften up enemy defenses, on the advice of the chemist Fritz Haber the Germans brought up thousands of cylinders of chlorine gas, which was released over the top of the trenches by long tubes (image below), relying on the wind to carry it over the enemy lines. The Allies had received reports about these plans in early April but dismissed them as psychological warfare or rumors.

By the end of the first day the chlorine gas had killed around 6,000 French soldiers and sent the rest fleeing for safety, leaving a four-mile-wide gap in the Allied line, with no defenders standing between the Germans and Ypres. From here a concerted German push might have unraveled the whole Western Front, clearing the way to the French ports on the English Channel and thus cutting off British supplies the elusive goal of the First Battle of Ypres.

Unsure how effective the new weapon really was, as dusk approached the German 46th Reserve, 51st Reserve, and 52nd Reserve Divisions emerged from their trenches and cautiously advanced behind the deadly cloud  then were stunned to find the French trenches completely abandoned, or filled with dead and dying soldiers, the latter incapacitated by the gas. By nightfall the Germans had pushed forward about three miles, reaching the village of Gravenstafel and taking a nearby ridge. To the south they advanced within two miles of Ypres now transformed into an inferno by their bombardment. 

Ypres in Flames

The burning city lit up the night sky for miles around, providing a spectacular backdrop to the brutal battle unfolding on its outskirts. William Robinson, an American volunteer driver with the British Expeditionary Force, described Ypres under shellfire: "It seemed as though the whole city was being torn from its very foundations, so terrible was the din. Wagons, horses, autos, bicycles, were piled up everywhere. Men, women, and children, soldiers and civilians, were lying dead and dying in every street." Peat recalled the scene as viewed from outside the city:

The night of April twenty-second is one that I can never forget. It was frightful, yes. Yet there was a grandeur in the appalling intensity of living, and the appalling intensity of death as it surrounded us. The German shells rose and burst behind us. They made the Yser Canal a stream of molten glory. Shells fell in the city, and split the darkness of the heavens in the early night hours. Later the moon rose in a splendor of spring-time. Straight behind the tower of the great cathedral it rose and shone down on a bloody earth. Suddenly the grand old Cloth Hall burst into flames. The spikes of fire rose and fell and rose again. Showers of sparks went upward. A pall of smoke would form and cloud the moon, waver, break and pass. There was the mutter and rumble and roar of great guns. There was the groan of wounded and the gasp of dying. It was glorious. It was terrible. It was inspiring. Through an inferno of destruction and death, of murder and horror, we lived because we must.

Canadians Save the Day

The poison gas had punched a huge hole in the Allied line but it wasn't totally abandoned: to the east the neighboring trenches were still held by the Canadian First Division, who saw the Germans advancing virtually unopposed on their left flank and sprang into action. Indeed these mostly untried soldiers made one of the most desperate and gallant defenses of the whole war, extending their line west to fill the gap and holding off an enemy force many times larger than themselves through sheer stubbornness and endurance.

The Canadians were aided by the quick thinking of a chemist, Lieutenant Colonel George Nasmith, and a medical officer, Captain Francis Alexander Scrimger, who deduced that the Germans were using chlorine gas and improvised a simple, if disgusting, countermeasure: they advised the men to hold handkerchiefs soaked in urine over their noses and mouths, because the ammonia in the urine would help neutralize the chlorine. On the other hand they also had to contend with the defective Ross rifle, notorious for jamming when it heated up from repeat firing. 

Armed with these makeshift gasmasks and faulty rifles, the Canadians on the left end of the line hurled themselves at the advancing Germans at Gravenstafel. Because the phone lines had been cut by the German bombardment the officers on the scene had no idea where their French allies were or how many enemy troops they were facing, which may explain their decision to attack an enemy force of over 10,000 men with just 1,500 men supported by field artillery. Incredibly, it worked: at 11:45pm the battalion of Canadian Highlanders stormed the Germans hastily dug trenches in nearby Kitchener's Wood, a forest about two miles northeast of Ypres, and sent the surprised enemy reeling back. Predictably the Highlanders suffered huge numbers of casualties in this savage combat. One soldier recalled:

Pressing on in the wood the struggle became a dreadful hand-to-hand conflict; we fought in clumps and batches, and the living struggled over the bodies of the dead and dying. At the height of the conflict, while we were steadily driving the Germans before us, the moon burst out The clashing bayonets flashed like quicksilver, and faces were lit up as by limelight.

 The Canadian Highlanders had lost about two thirds of their original force, but they halted the German advance long enough for more troops from the First Canadian Division to join the fight. At 5:45am the Canadian 1st and 4th Battalions attacked the German defenses on Mauser's Ridge west of Kitchener's Wood, once again crossing mostly open ground in front of vigilant enemy troops, now well entrenched. The result was a bloodbath, as the Germans opened up on the advancing Canadians with field artillery, machine guns and massed rifle fire. But the Canadians dug in and more British troops were arriving as the Allied commanders scrambled to close the gap in their lines. One Canadian officer, Frederic Curry, described the surreal scene as the reserves raced to take up their positions:

As we continued northward the throbbing of distant gunfire became plainer, and a strange flickering could be seen in the morning sky. This strange light, caused by the flash of the guns and the flares or illuminating fuzees shot up by the infantry, resembled nothing so much as our own Aurora Borealis, and we were not surprised to find, a little later, that our men had already nicknamed them the "Northern Lights." 

The Canadians had succeeded in blunting the enemy offensive by sheer bluff, as their audacious counterattacks deceived the Germans into thinking they faced more Allied troops than they really did. By noon on April 23 the Allied defensive line was reforming but there were a mere ten Canadian battalions facing over 50 German battalions. 

Nonetheless British Expeditionary Force commander Sir John French now ordered another attack on Mauser's Ridge north of Ypres on the afternoon of April 23. This turned out to be completely futile, as the British artillery bombardment alerted the Germans to the coming assault (before running out of ammunition at the critical moment), while promised support from neighboring French units failed to materialize. Once again the casualty list was huge. Peat recalled the huge losses inflicted by German machine guns and rifles as the Canadians advanced over open ground: "Out of the seven hundred and fifty of us who advanced, a little over two hundred and fifty gained the German trench; and of that number twenty-five or more fell dead as soon as they reached the enemy." After this attack failed, the exhausted British troops dug in, scrounged for food, and tried to get some sleep. But the battle was only beginning.

St. Julien

The British were about to get their own taste of gas. On April 24 around 4am the Germans unleashed another cloud of chlorine gas against the First Canadian Division and British 28th Division holding the line around the village of St. Julien. The Canadians and British tried to use handkerchiefs soaked in urine as before, but the chlorine gas was too concentrated this time. 

Now Canadian and British soldiers could witness the effects of chlorine gas up close. Even before the gas reached their trenches its impact was all too clear, according to a Canadian officer, J.A. Currie, who observed "the deadly wall of chlorine gas which rolled slowly over the ground turning the budding leaves of the trees, the spring flowers and the grass a sickly white." When it hit the trenches it could drive men mad, according to a Scottish officer, Patrick McCoy, who left a vivid description of a gas attack around this time: 

I saw one man near me turn a sickly greenish-yellow... His eyes began to bulge from his head; froth filled his mouth and hung from his lips. He began tearing at his throat. The air wouldn't go into his lungs. He fell and rolled over and over, gasping and crying out while with his nails he tore open his throat, even wrenched out his windpipe. Then his chest heaved a time or two, and he lay still. Death had brought its blessed relief.

Death wasn't always instantaneous, however. Curry later saw gas casualties slowly dying at a field hospital, beyond any medical care: "Reeking with chlorine, their faces a livid purple or an even ghastlier green, they lay there on the stretchers, each with a little bowl beside him, coughing his life away." Many observers remarked on the strange colors of gas victims skin. A British officer, Bruce Bairnsfather, remembered: "Poor fellows, their features were distorted and their faces livid. Blood-tainted froth clung to their lips. Their skins were mottled blue and white. They were a heartbreaking sight to behold." However some soldiers who received a mild dose of gas were able to recover (below, British troops who were gassed at Ypres).

 

The Allies were already learning strategies to deal with poison gas. At St. Julien, for example, some men managed to avoid the worst effects by standing up on top of the trench parapet, correctly assuming the Germans would hang back far behind the gas cloud, the distance making it harder to hit their targets; they then returned to the trench once the cloud had passed. So the gas failed to force the Canadians to retreat, and this time around the advancing Germans were surprised to encounter a hail of bullets from machine guns and rifles as they approached the enemy trenches (the Canadian troops had to form teams to load their maddeningly uncooperative Ross rifles). Currie described the carnage: "The men waited till the Germans emerged from their trenches three or four deep to charge. Then our whistles blew, and hundreds of them were cut down and piled on top of each other before they broke and ran back to their trenches. One machine gun got about 200 of them." However the Germans now resorted to huge artillery bombardments followed by a massive infantry attack and eventually forced the Canadians to withdraw, giving up St. Julien shortly after noon on April 24. With some Canadian brigades in danger of being surrounded, the German bombardment continued into the night, according to Currie:

As the night closed down the heavens were lit with the German flares and the lurid flashes from their guns. The German flares crossed each other in the heavens behind us. In our left rear, and all around to the right rear, I could see the angry red flashes of the thousands of guns they were directing against our devoted defenders. Almost every calibre of gun was being used against us, from the great seventeen inch Austrian siege mortars they were firing at Ypres and Poperinghe behind us, to the nine, seven, six, five, four and three-inch high explosive shells that were filling the air with their fiendish notes.

Over the next two days the Canadians formed a new defensive line and mounted a series of counterattacks aiming to drive the Germans out of St. Julien, briefly succeeding in capturing some German trenches, but suffered so many casualties that they were unable to hold the positions. A gap remained on the Canadian left, where the Germans had pushed past St. Julien, threatening a breakthrough. On April 24-25 massive German assaults around the village again forced the Canadians make strategic withdrawals while waiting for desperately needed British reinforcements. Bairnsfather, one of the reinforcements, remembered marching to their relief in miserable weather:

We were marching in pouring rain and darkness down a muddy, mangled road, shattered poplar trees sticking up in black streaks on either side. Crash after crash, shells were falling and exploding all around us, and behind the burning city. The road took a turn. We marched for a short time parallel to now distant Ypres. Through the charred skeleton wrecks of houses one caught glimpses of the yellow flames mounting to the sky. We passed over the Yser Canal, dirty, dark and stagnant, reflecting the yellow glow of the flames. On our left was a church and graveyard, both blown to a thousand pieces. Tombstones lying about and sticking up at odd angles all over the torn-up ground. I guided my section a little to one side to avoid a dead horse lying across the road. The noise of shrapnel bursting about us only ceased occasionally, making way for ghastly, ominous silences. And the rain kept pouring down.

When they arrived Bairnsfather's unit was plunged directly into battle:

Bullets were flying through the air in all directions. Ahead, in the semi-darkness, I could just see the forms of men running out into the fields on either side of the road in extended order, and beyond them a continuous heavy crackling of rifle-fire showed me the main direction of the attack. The German machine guns were now busy, and sent sprays of bullets flicking up the ground all round us. Lying behind a slight fold in the ground we saw them whisking through the grass, three or four inches over our heads. 

By April 25 British troops had relieved the beleaguered Canadians, now down to a fraction of their original strength, and once again established a more or less coherent defensive line. But the Germans still held a huge chunk of formerly Allied territory in the salient, and continued pressing their attacks. On April 26-27 ambitious counterattacks by French troops and fresh troops from the Indian Lahore Division failed utterly because the French didn't commit enough men to the attack; the Indian troops charged bravely but the attack was shattered by German firepower. In a fit of pique, BEF commander Sir John French took out his frustration on General Horace Smith-Dorrien, who was in charge of the operation, by relieving him of command but the simple fact was two colonial divisions were practically destroyed, and the BEF had no choice but to withdraw to a new, shorter line outside Ypres.

Outrage   

Needless to say public opinion in Allied countries was outraged by Germanys use of poison gas, banned by the Hague conventions of the previous two decades. After massacres of Belgian civilians, the burning of Louvain and the Cathedral of Reims, the bombardment of British cities from the sea and air, and unrestricted U-boat warfare, the decision to employ poison gas seemed to be the final proof of German barbarism and frightfulness. 

However there was also general recognition that now the Allies would have to employ the shocking new weapon as well, or risk defeat. The British, French, and Russian governments immediately put scientists to work researching chemical weapons of their own. On April 25, an anonymous British nurse wrote a sardonic entry in her diary: "The beasts of Germans laid out a whole trench full of Zouaves with chlorine gas. Of course every one is busy finding out how we can go one better now." A German officer made the same prediction: "Of course, the entire world will rage about it first and then imitate us." 

Shellshock 

By this time military and medical authorities were beginning to notice a troubling phenomenon, as seemingly fit young men without visible injuries were incapacitated by what appeared to be a paralyzing nervous disorder. As more and more cases were observed, it became known as shellshock. At first the general inclination was to brand soldiers suffering from shellshock as cowards and punish them with courts martial followed by prison or even execution. However these attitudes softened somewhat when it became clear the mental illness was profound and involuntary; it would later be clinically described as post-traumatic stress disorder. One German psychiatrist described a soldier who had been buried alive for two hours on May 3, 1915: 

When admitted to hospital, B. was completely disorientated and confused and motorically very restless. B. is terrified by every noise, when brought to this ward, he started whining and screaming. Lying in his bed he was apparently still frightened, he crept under the duvet as if looking for cover against shells. During the night, B. was very restless and nervous, he was screaming and crying, pushing his way out of bed, hiding away and trying to leave the room. According to his wife's statement, B. has always been a quiet, sensible and industrious person without any psychotic attitudes whatsoever. 

Two weeks later the same British nursing sister noted in her diary: "Just admitted a gunner suffering from shock alone  no wound completely knocked out; he can't tell you his name, or stand, or even sit up, but just shivers and shudders." And around this time an Englishwoman, Helen Mackay, volunteering as a nurse in a French hospital, described several of her patients: 

The number 18 is very bad. He does not know any one any more. He lies against a heap of cushions, his knees drawn up almost to his chin, his eyes wide open all the time, his hands picking at the covers... There is a boy who talks about riding over everything. He keeps saying, "We rode right over them, we rode right over them." There is another who keeps crying, "Oh, no, not that! Oh, no, not that!"

The mental illness was perhaps most perplexing and infuriating to the afflicted soldiers themselves. In January 1915 a German soldier, Franz Mller, wrote home from a military hospital: 

Due to the huge exertions of the last three days in particular, when our trench was literally turned upside down by heavy enemy artillery, I have developed a mental disease. I am up for just a few hours a day, for this bloody illness has affected my innocent legs. The pain and paralysis in my legs and in my right arm make it very difficult to move. Just imagine the giant of 92 kg trudging along like a crab between beds, chairs, and tables. It is utter mockery! 

Unfortunately shellshock could be triggered by loud sounds and especially explosions, which were of course inescapable on the Western Front, even at military hospitals miles behind the lines. Edward Casey, an Irish soldier in the British Army, recalled his own bout with shellshock: 

... still the sound of guns firing [could be heard]. Off I went again. I was told that I jumped out of bed and tried to get out of the window, but I felt strong hands around my shoulders [and] I felt a prick in my arm, and [fell into a deep] sleep again. I was told by the Doctor that for some weeks I lay in a state of shock. I had lost my memory, did not know who I was [or] what Regiment I belonged to. I had nightmares, and one night I walked out of the ward door, went to the yard (it was freezing night) [and] I climbed the gutter pipe... I was very worried at the thought of being confined to a mad House. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

15 Fascinating Facts About Schindler’s List

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

In 1993, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List brought to the screen a story that had gone untold since the tragic events of the Holocaust. Oskar Schindler, a Nazi party member, used his pull within the party to save the lives of more than 1000 Jewish individuals by recruiting them to work in his Polish factory. Here are some facts about Spielberg’s groundbreaking film on its 25th anniversary.

1. The story was relayed to author Thomas Keneally in a Beverly Hills leather goods shop.

In October 1980, Australian novelist Thomas Keneally had stopped into a leather goods shop off of Rodeo Drive after a book tour stopover from a film festival in Sorrento, Italy, where one of his books was adapted into a movie. When the owner of the shop, Leopold Page, learned that Keneally was a writer, he began telling him “the greatest story of humanity man to man.” That story was how Page, his wife, and thousands of other Jews were saved by a Nazi factory owner named Oskar Schindler during World War II.

Page gave Keneally photocopies of documents related to Schindler, including speeches, firsthand accounts, testimonies, and the actual list of names of the people he saved. It inspired Keneally to write the book Schindler’s Ark, on which the movie is based. Page (whose real name was Poldek Pfefferberg) ended up becoming a consultant on the film.

2. Keneally wasn't the first person Leopold Page told about Oskar Schindler.

The film rights to Page’s story were actually first purchased by MGM for $50,000 in the 1960s after Page had similarly ambushed the wife of film producer Marvin Gosch at his leather shop. Mrs. Gosch told the story to her husband, who agreed to produce a film version, even going so far as hiring Casablanca co-screenwriter Howard Koch to write the script. Koch and Gosch began interviewing Schindler Jews in and around the Los Angeles area, and even Schindler himself, before the project stalled, leaving the story unknown to the public at large.

3. Schindler made more than one list.

Liam Neeson, Agnieszka Krukówna, Krzysztof Luft, Friedrich von Thun, and Marta Bizon in Schindler's List (1993)
Universal Pictures

Seven lists in all were made by Oskar Schindler and his associates during the war, while four are known to still exist. Two are at the Yad Vashem in Israel, one is at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and one privately owned list was unsuccessfully auctioned off via eBay in 2013.

The movie refers to the first two lists created in 1944, otherwise known as “The Lists of Life.” The five subsequent lists were updates to the first two versions, which included the names of more than 1000 Jews who Schindler saved by recruiting them to work in his factory.

4. Steven Spielberg first learned of Schindler in the early 1980s.

Former MCA/Universal president Sid Sheinberg, a father figure to Spielberg, gave the director Keneally’s book when it was first published in 1982, to which Spielberg allegedly replied, “It’ll make a helluva story. Is it true?”

Eventually the studio bought the rights to the book, and when Page met with Spielberg to discuss the story, the director promised the Holocaust survivor that he would make the film adaptation within 10 years. The project languished for over a decade because Spielberg was reluctant to take on such serious subject matter. Spielberg’s hesitation actually stopped Hollywood veteran Billy Wilder from making Schindler’s List his final film. Wilder tried to buy the rights to Keneally’s book, but Spielberg and MCA/Universal scooped them up before he could.

5. Spielberg refused to accept a salary for making the movie.

Though Spielberg is already an extremely wealthy man as a result of the many big-budget movies that have made him one of Hollywood’s most successful directors, he decided that a story as important as Schindler’s List shouldn’t be made with an eye toward financial reward. The director relinquished his salary for the movie and any proceeds he would stand to make in perpetuity, calling any such personal gains “blood money.” Instead, Spielberg used the film’s profits to found the USC Shoah Foundation, which was established in 1994 to honor and remember the survivors of the Holocaust by collecting personal recollections and audio visual interviews.

6. Before Spielberg agreed to make the movie, he tried to get other directors to make it.

Part of Spielberg’s reluctance to make Schindler's List was that he didn’t feel that he was prepared or mature enough to tackle a film about the Holocaust. So he tried to recruit other directors to make the film. He first approached director Roman Polanski, a Holocaust survivor whose own mother was killed in Auschwitz. Polanski declined, but would go on to make his own film about the Holocaust, The Pianist, which earned him a Best Director Oscar in 2003. Spielberg then offered the movie to director Sydney Pollack, who also passed.

The job was then offered to legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who accepted. Scorsese was set to put the film into production when Spielberg had an epiphany on the set of the revisionist Peter Pan story Hook and realized that he was finally prepared to make Schindler’s List. To make up for the change of heart, Spielberg traded Scorsese the rights to a movie he’d been developing that Scorsese would make into his next film: the remake of Cape Fear.

7. The movie was a gamble for Universal, so they made Spielberg a dino-sized deal.

When Spielberg finally decided to make Schindler’s List, it had taken him so long that Sheinberg and Universal balked. The relatively low-budget $23 million three-hour black-and-white Holocaust movie was too much of a risk, so they asked Spielberg to make another project that had been brewing at the studio: Jurassic Park. Make the lucrative summer movie first, they said, and then he could go and make his passion project. Spielberg agreed, and both movies were released in 1993; Jurassic Park in June and Schindler’s List in December.

8. Spielberg didn't want a movie star with Hollywood clout to portray Schindler.

Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson auditioned for the role of Oskar Schindler, and actor Warren Beatty was far enough along in the process that he even made it as far as a script reading. But according to Spielberg, Beatty was dropped because, “Warren would have played it like Oskar Schindler through Warren Beatty.”

For the role, Spielberg cast then relatively unknown Irish actor Liam Neeson, whom the director had seen in a Broadway play called Anna Christie. “Liam was the closest in my experience of what Schindler was like,” Spielberg told The New York Times. “His charm, the way women love him, his strength. He actually looks a little bit like Schindler, the same height, although Schindler was a rotund man,” he said. “If I had made the movie in 1964, I would have cast Gert Frobe, the late German actor. That’s what he looked like.”

Besides having Neeson listen to recordings of Schindler, the director also told him to study the gestures of former Time Warner chairman Steven J. Ross, another of Spielberg’s mentors, and the man to whom he dedicated the film.

9. Spielberg did his own research.

In order to gain a more personal perspective on the film, Spielberg traveled to Poland before principal photography began to interview Holocaust survivors and visit the real-life locations that he planned to portray in the movie. While there, he visited the former Gestapo headquarters on Pomorska Street, Schindler’s actual apartment, and Amon Goeth’s villa.

Eventually the film shot on location for 92 days in Poland by recreating the Płaszów camp in a nearby abandoned rock quarry. The production was also allowed to shoot scenes outside the gates of Auschwitz.

10. The little girl in the red coat was real.

Promotional image for 25th anniversary rerelease of Schindler's List.
Universal Pictures

A symbol of innocence in the movie, the little girl in the red coat who appears during the liquidation of the ghetto in the movie was based on a real person. In the film, the little girl is played by actress Oliwia Dabrowska, who—at the age of three—promised Spielberg that she would not watch the film until she was 18 years old. She allegedly watched the movie when she was 11, breaking her promise, and spent years rejecting the experience. Later, she told the Daily Mail, “I realized I had been part of something I could be proud of. Spielberg was right: I had to grow up to watch the film.”

The actual girl in the red coat was named Roma Ligocka; a survivor of the Krakow ghetto, she was known amongst the Jews living there by her red winter coat. Ligocka, now a painter who lives in Germany, later wrote a biography about surviving the Holocaust called The Girl in the Red Coat.

11. The movie wasn't supposed to be in English.

For a better sense of reality, Spielberg originally wanted to shoot the movie completely in Polish and German using subtitles, but he eventually decided against it because he felt that it would take away from the urgency and importance of the images onscreen. According to Spielberg, “I wanted people to watch the images, not read the subtitles. There’s too much safety in reading. It would have been an excuse to take their eyes off the screen and watch something else.”

12. The studio didn't want the movie to be in black and white.

The only person at MCA/Universal who agreed with Spielberg and director of cinematography Janusz Kaminski’s decision to shoot the movie in black and white was Sheinberg. Everyone else lobbied against the idea, saying that it would stylize the Holocaust. Spielberg and Kaminski chose to shoot the film in a grimy, unstylish fashion and format inspired by German Expressionist and Italian Neorealist films. Also, according to Spielberg, “It’s entirely appropriate because I’ve only experienced the Holocaust through other people’s testimonies and through archival footage which is, of course, all in black and white.”

13. Spielberg's passion project paid off in Oscars.

Schindler’s List was the big winner at the 66th Academy Awards. The film won a total of seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director awards for Spielberg. Neeson and Ralph Fiennes were both nominated for their performances, and the film also received nods for Costume Design, Makeup, and Sound.

14. Schindler's List is technically a student film.

Steven Spielberg gives a speech
Nicholas Hunt, Getty Images

Thirty-three years after dropping out of college, Spielberg finally received a BA in Film and Video Production from his newly minted alma mater, Cal State Long Beach, in 2002. The director re-enrolled in secret, and gained his remaining credits by writing essays and submitting projects under a pseudonym. In order to pass a film course, he submitted Schindler’s List as his student project. Spielberg describes the time gap between leaving school and earning his degree as his “longest post-production schedule.”

15. Spielberg thinks the film may be even more important to watch today.

In honor of the film's 25th anniversary, it's currently back in theaters. But Spielberg believes that the film may be even more important for today's audiences to see. "I think this is maybe the most important time to re-release this film," the director said in a recent interview with Lester Holt on NBC Nightly News. Citing the spike in hate crimes targeting religious minorities since
2016, he said, "Hate's less parenthetical today, it's more a headline."

Additional Sources:
The Making of Schindler’s List: Behind the Scenes of an Epic Film, by Franciszek Palowski

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2015.

The Most-Searched Holiday Movie in Every State, Mapped

iStock.com/chrispecoraro
iStock.com/chrispecoraro

Do you live in a Gremlins state or a Home Alone state? StreamingObserver is here to tell you. The streaming-industry site recently used Rotten Tomatoes and other public data sources to figure out the most popular Christmas movies in each state. Spoiler: It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t quite the Christmas classic you thought it was.

The list takes some liberties with what might be considered a “Christmas” movie. Die Hard (a favorite in Missouri and Wisconsin) made the list, as did Batman Returns (California’s most-searched movie) and Edward Scissorhands (popular in Nevada and Arizona). They aren’t quite the traditional Hallmark holiday fare, but they each include at least some nod to the Christmas season.

Then there’s the more standard Yuletide entertainment, like A Christmas Carol (Tennessee’s favorite) and Frosty the Snowman (South Dakota's pick). Christmas in Connecticut, oddly enough, is Montana’s favorite (unclear whether that’s the 1945 film or the 1992 TV movie), while Connecticut’s favorite is the 1983 Eddie Murphy film Trading Places. The Apartment, The Snowman, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Best Man Holiday also make an appearance. Seven states list Gremlins as their favorite, while six chose Home Alone and three chose Scrooged.

The data is based on Google searches, rather than surveys, so it's possible that the movie at the top of each state's list isn't so much beloved as it is curiosity-inspiring. It's possible that all these people are Googling Gremlins, then deciding not to watch it. But we feel fairly confident saying a lot of people will be watching Die Hard this Christmas season. (Tip: You can't stream it on Netflix right now, but you can rent it on Amazon.)

The 2018 results are fairly different from StreamingObserver's 2016 data, which you can compare here. Do you agree with your state's preferences?

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